Saturday, January 26, 2008

Encounter with Hank Williams

I'll never get out of this world alive (a belated encounter with Hank Williams) ©

By George Epp

Capo: 1st Fret Key: F# Play: F
Now you're [F] lookin' at a man that's gettin' kind-a mad
I had lot's of luck but it's all been bad
No [C7] matter how I struggle and strive
I'll never get out of this world a-[F] live.[1]

I’m told Hank Williams died on January 1, 1953; I would have been 11 at the time, probably in Grade 5. In the space of a year before he expired in the back of his car on the way to a concert, the Grand Ole Opry fired him, his wife divorced him, his health deteriorated, his alcohol addiction worsened, etc., etc. I was at an event in the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern last night where singer Joe Matheson and his band recreated a concert by Hank Williams in the Kawliga CafĂ© shortly before the country-music icon’s death at 29 years of age.

This morning, I told A.K. and E.T. about it over coffee, and I hauled up the old joke, “What’s a perfect pitch?” Answer: “Being able to hit an open dumpster with a steel guitar from ten paces.” Actually, I’m grateful to the inventor of the steel guitar and the person or people who discovered that a violin can double as a fiddle; they make bagpipes and accordions look a whole lot more respectable.

I don’t think I’m a snob, but to me the whining of a steel guitar or the scraping of a fiddle has all the charm of picking one’s teeth with a fork. Since neither instrument has frets or keys, pitch is approximated on a sliding scale, and in last night’s case, the nearly-right-note was present in full bloom.

But I have to admit that the evening was an entertaining doorway to the country music counter-culture of the 40s and 50s, and I remembered that I used to listen to Hank Snow, Wilf Carter, Gene Autry and, yes, Hank Williams, by choice.

Kawliga was a wooden Indian standing by the door,
He fell in love with an Indian maid, over in the antique store.
Kawliga-a-a; just stood there and never let it show
So she could never answer yes or no.

At intermission, some of the audience commented on the crudity of the jokes. Hank Williams’ relationship to his wife was rocky, and the repeated references to her as a millstone around Williams’ neck by the actor portraying him (along with the implicit derogation of the female species generally) was about as politically incorrect as it’s possible to get these days. But it was a faithful replication of the banter of the time, and for me, a reminder that there has been progress in the area of gender equality and respect.

Your cheatin' heart will make you weep,
You'll cry and cry and try to sleep.
But sleep won't come the whole night through,
Your cheatin' heart will tell on you.

If there’s a common theme running through Hank Williams’ lyrics, it would have to be the tumult of man-woman relationships. But then, tragic love remains the ubiquitous grist for the country music songwriters’ mills to this day. A gag about that says, “What do you get when you play a country song backward?” Answer: “You get your girl back, you get your dog back and you get your truck back!”

I got a feelin' called the blu-ues, oh, Lawd
Since my baby said good-bye
And I don't know what I'll do-oo-oo
All I do is sit and sigh-igh, oh, Lawd

Country music owes something to southern gospel, obviously. The Hank Williams character in the show says that the sound of a gospel choir drifting across the fields when he was a kid influenced him heavily. It seems that even the heavy drinkin’, wild lovin’ country balladeers like Williams have always carried a torch for Jesus. Booze, a twanging guitar, a ten gallon hat and a white Cadillac with steer horns on the hood seem to fall very near the saving of the sinner’s soul in the old gospel way.

I wandered so aimless life filed with sin
I wouldn't let my dear saviour in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light.

I grant Williams this much: to have written as many songs as he did—and I have to say, he was very good at that craft; his tunes and lyrics invade and inhabit your consciousness like a tumour given the chance—by the time he was 29 is a remarkable achievement on its own. To have made as many recordings as he did, despite his addictions and his decadent life style, makes him a legend in his field.

It’s hard to be too complimentary about the talent of Joe Matheson. He successfully stayed in character for the entire 90 minutes; A few times, I almost believed I was in the presence of old Hank himself!

But in a way, I was thankful to be able to leave after it was all sung and done. Agnes whispered to me at one point, “Ain’t—Isn’t—this the same song he just sung—I mean—sang?”

Too much twangin’, plunk-chang-changin’ and honky-tonkin’ can drive anyone to chasin Rabbits, pickin' out rings and Howlin' At The Moon.

[1] All excerpts from Hank Williams’ songs taken from ST LYRICS at